Vince Cable writes…We need to catch up with our European neighbours in fighting Cancer

Cancer is traumatising. It is universal, leaving no family untouched.

I saw this first-hand. Cancer took my first wife, Olympia, in 2001. To repeat what I wrote in my memoirs, that experience showed me that whatever may be said in criticism of the NHS, the capacity of the system to deliver high quality, sophisticated treatment to the acutely sick is so greatly appreciated by those who receive it.

Living with and caring for a cancer sufferer for 14 years led me to want to help others and to use my political position to do so. I campaigned subsequently for wider breast cancer screening, a screening programme for cervical cancer and the introduction of bowel cancer screening.

So many people work so hard to stop cancer: raising money with bake sales, running marathons, nagging our loved ones to eat better, drink less, stop smoking.

In the 2017/18 alone, there were donations of £192m to Cancer Research UK, a further £153m raised from events and charity shops.

But Cancer Research UK is marking the 70th anniversary of the NHS with a campaign to get the Government to commit to invest in training and employing more specialist staff to diagnose cancer early.

This is because, despite all we are doing, all the money we are raising, the UK is falling behind other European countries in the successful treatment of cancer. Olympia had diagnosis and  treatment that showed the NHS at its best. Others have been less fortunate – an IT glitch meant hundreds of thousands of women in England missed breast cancer screenings. 

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry report last month July showed that British patients have worse survival rates after five years compared to the European average in nine out of ten cancers.

The UK’s ovarian cancer survival rate of patients for five years or more is 34%, the worst in Europe. The European average is 40.8% for patients surviving for five years or more.

One of the barriers to the UK successfully treating cancer is the lack of healthcare professionals. Currently, one in ten diagnostic posts in England is unfilled, with similar levels across the rest of the UK.

And while the Conservatives celebrate a drop in EU immigration following the Brexit referendum, they fail to mention that this number included sorely needed doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. For the future of successful cancer treatment in the UK the Government must guarantee the rights of all NHS and social care service staff who are EU nationals to stay in the UK.

One of the great challenges is the approach to childhood cancer.

The cancers that affect children however are often deemed “rare” and are less likely to receive funding at a time when NHS funding has never been tighter.

As an immediate step the Liberal Democrats urge the Government to put our health and social care system back on a sustainable financial footing with an immediate 1p rise on Income Tax to raise £6 billion additional revenue, which would be ringfenced to be spent only on NHS and social care services.

Long-term we need an earmarked tax to make sure the NHS is properly funded and that we can catch up with our European neighbours in the fight against cancer.

Excerpts of this piece will be included in the Cancer Research UK NHS70 cancer spotlight month blog


* Sir Vince Cable is MP for Twickenham and was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2017 until 2019.

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  • Eddie Sammon 17th Aug '18 - 12:05pm

    Nobody “likes” paying more taxes but when they are going to things like tackling cancer I think people will support it. I do.

    I still think it’s important the Lib Dems don’t focus too much on tax increases, so it’s important to retain a laser focus on efficiency in spending.

    The NHS, its finances and workers, are also a good anti-Brexit argument.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Aug '18 - 5:51pm

    Bowel cancer screening is cheap compared with the cost of treatment of sufferers. Invitations should go out to a wider group of people.
    More of those invited should take up the offer.

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Aug '18 - 7:45pm

    “Bowel cancer screening is cheap compared with the cost of treatment of sufferers.”
    Are you comparing the cost of screening one person with the cost of treating one person? Because that’s not how it works.

  • @Richard – “Bowel cancer screening … Invitations should go out to a wider group of people. More of those invited should take up the offer.”

    Given the NHS (England) send out invitations to everyone over 55 – the main “at risk” group, okay with the caveat “if its available in your area” and then again every two years for those 60-74, I don’t see there being a “wider group”.

    Information on the take-up rate is scarce, one report from 2015 indicated it was around 45%, but a 2017 article notes this has increased as helpful interventions have been identified and put into use. So whilst I agree, I suspect this is more work in progress as we change peoples attitudes to health screening.

    I think that Vince loses the momentum on this issue by, having identified a key barrier to cancer screening and what Cancer Research UK are doing, simply calling for an increase in general NHS funding. I would be calling for more targeted spending – as Cancer Research UK are doing, but using the tax increase as a funding source.

  • John Barrett 21st Aug '18 - 9:22am

    @Roland @Richard – “Bowel cancer screening … Invitations should go out to a wider group of people. More of those invited should take up the offer.”
    Given the NHS (England) send out invitations to everyone over 55 – the main “at risk” group, okay with the caveat “if its available in your area” and then again every two years for those 60-74, I don’t see there being a “wider group”.

    One improvement would be to extend the bowel cancer screening to everyone over 50, throughout the country, as is the case in Scotland and as a result it probably saved my life. Screening every two to three years should be available in all areas, but it only helps those who take up the offer. Sadly too few people, particularly men, especially in poorer areas, take up the offer.

    Sadly the husband of a parliamentary colleague (in England) of the same age as me at the time was not screened and his condition developed and quickly became terminal, while my very similar condition was caught early and treated with surgery and chemotherapy.

    Possibly the comment “Bowel cancer screening is cheap compared with the cost of treatment of sufferers” actually meant more than that, in that the savings of both suffering and the increased cost of treating those who go on to develop more widespread problems, makes the screening programme great value in more than simply monetary terms.

    We also should not be afraid to say something that no party is willing to discuss, and that is the role of the public in caring for their own health.

    A very large amount of cancers are as a direct result of lifestyle choices and while every party is happy to promote increased spending on the NHS, no party is willing to discuss how to reduce the demand on that same system. Not only in relation to a variety of cancer treatments, but also to reduce the demand on A & E units, which are often bursting at the seams at the weekend with alcohol related problems.

  • John Barrett 21st Aug '18 - 4:29pm

    Paul – That was a quote from Roland that I was commenting on.
    I just assumed that was correct.
    Maybe that’s a dangerous thing to do?

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